The Role of Curley’s Wife in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1937)

Curley’s wife only makes three appearances in Of Mice and Men, but from the first she intrigues the reader.  Despite being the only female in the novel, she is not given a name, merely the label: ‘Curley’s wife’.  This seems to mark her as a possession, not an individual person and, as such, she is not allowed to grow or develop during the short course of the novel.  Steinbeck’s first description of her is of ‘a girl’.  She stands framed like a pretty but useless picture in the doorway of the bunkhouse.  Steinbeck describes her as doll-like, with her sausage curls ‘rouged lips and wide-spaced eyes, heavily made up’, which seems to reinforce the idea of her as an object to be possessed rather than as a person in her own right.

Rouged lips, red fingernails and red mules with ‘little bouquets of red ostrich feathers’ have strong connotations of female sexuality and danger: the red warning light, which links to Lennie’s weakness for pretty, soft things.  However, these also contrast dramatically with her simple cotton house dress and the fact she remains in the doorway, as if she is unsure of her place or knows she is not welcome in the bunkhouse. Both of these suggest her vulnerability and set her up for her role as a victim.

We already know from Candy’s comment ‘I think Curley’s married...a tart’ that Curley’s pretty wife is not a popular lady on the ranch.  George, who is very quick to judge people from first impressions, does not take long to sum her up ‘Jesus, what a tramp,’ he says and goes on to describe her as ‘poison’ and  ‘jail-bait’.  This is foreshadowing, or a strong warning, because Lennie, who ‘watched her, fascinated’ was full of admiration: ‘Gosh, she was purty.’  Later on we find out why Steinbeck rang these early alarm bells, but the message is echoed resoundingly before then.

It seems all the men believed Curley’s wife was trouble.  She was an outsider in every sense of the word.  She could never fit in on a ranch and her incongruous appearance: her painted face, lips and nails and her insubstantial, pretty footwear are all clear indicators of this.  She comes to the bunkhouse on a flimsy excuse ‘looking for Curley’, when what she is really looking for is company and a little human kindness in the harsh environment in which she has no useful place.  She is not even the mistress of the ranch, merely the boss’s son’s wife.

Although the men seem to enjoy talking about Curley’s wife, none of them seem to like her very much.  Whit observes: ‘Seems like she can’t keep away from guys’, which is another forewarning but when you learn more about the man she is married to, it is easy to believe all she really wants is company and, sadly, on the ranch, the only company is male.  Married to an insensitive and possessive man she barely knows and whom everyone dislikes, it is hardly surprising she looks for a little human kindness wherever she can find it.

On her second appearance, however, Steinbeck destroys the sympathy he has built up in the reader.  This is because she ruins the wonderful dream that is unfolding before the credulous eyes of Lennie, Candy and Crooks.  We already know that Crooks, another outsider, lives in enforced isolation in the harness room off the barn, visited only by Slim and the boss.  He is taken off guard and completely disarmed when Lennie visits him.  By the time Candy arrives, he is a transformed man: ‘It was difficult for Crooks to conceal his pleasure with anger’.  As the dream grows and blossoms in the minds of all three men, however, Curley’s wife appears and quickly and cruelly destroys it for Crooks.

Once again her face is ‘heavily made up’ and her lips are parted from her heavy breathing ‘as though she had been running.’  And once again she is looking for Curley, who she knows she will not find in Crooks’ room.  ‘They left all the weak ones here,’ she observes, not realizing she is included in her own cruel dismissal of the men before her.  She, too, has been left behind with the old swamper, the infirmed black stable buck and the simple-minded Lennie.  She also, however, quickly reveals her loneliness when she criticises the men for being nice to her when she meets them alone but ‘just let two of you guys get together an’ you won’t talk.  Jus’ nothing but mad.’  A more sensitive man might take pity on her, but Steinbeck seems to be at pains to point out that such men have no place on ranches where completely different qualities are valued.

Rejection and frustration makes Curley’s wife turn nasty and insulting.  It also encourages an outpouring of her own personal dream ‘I could of went with shows...a guy tol’ me he could put me in pitchers’.  And the fact that Curley’s wife believes this is one of the saddest dreams in the novel.

Nevertheless, her derision of the men’s dream and her threat to get Crooks ‘strung up on a tree’ effectively put an end to all Crooks’ hopes.  She reminds him of the reality of his life as a crippled black man in a white man’s world and he knows he is powerless to fight her.  This is not too dissimilar to the reason George and Lennie had to flee from Weed and is a sad reflection on the power of people in society who can crush the hopes and dreams of others with just a word.  It seems every time the dream starts to blossom into reality in Lennie’s simple mind, it is immediately squashed by someone else.

The final time Curley’s wife appears in the novel, Steinbeck seems to treat her more sympathetically.  Yet again, she is seeking company wherever she can find it and this time with tragic consequences.  When she encounters Lennie in the barn, grieving over his dead puppy, she cannot share his misery and fear but wants to help.  To her, Lennie’s precious puppy is just a ‘mutt’.  ‘You can get another one easy’, she reassures him, but even Lennie knows differently.

For Lennie, the death of the puppy symbolises the death of his precious dream, but Curley’s wife is incapable of recognizing this.  Nevertheless Steinbeck presents her at her most gentle and understanding as she tries to reassure and soothe Lennie.  All her loneliness and isolation pours forth in an outburst that ‘tumbled out in a passion of communication, as though she hurried before her listener could be taken away’.  She tells the uncomprehending Lennie about her own impossible dream.  Perhaps any other man on the ranch might have recognised her cry for help, but sadly she chose Lennie, the one person who could not.

Although Curley’s wife had no possibility of understanding Lennie, the child in her reached out to him and found a way to communicate through his innocent but dangerous passion for feeling soft things.  Tragically this resulted in her death.  The way Steinbeck describes her in death is beautiful and hauntingly sad in its simple, cumulative effect: ‘And the meanness and the plannings and the discontent and the ache for attention were all gone from her face.  She was very pretty and simple, and her face was sweet and young.’  The clear and graphic images continue to build one on top of another with the simple conjunction ‘and’ to make the reader slow down in pace and consider each idea, each image in order to appreciate the significance of this young girl’s life and what her death meant.

Immediately following this description is one of the most lingeringly beautiful paragraphs in the novel:

              “As happens sometimes, a moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than                     a moment.  And sound stopped and movement stopped for much, much more than a                             moment.”

This shows genuine empathy with the character and reverence for her pitiful end.  It is written in such a way (again that repetition of ‘and’ and the sombre cumulative and alliterative effect of ‘much, much more’) to make the reader pause and reflect for a moment to share that feeling before continuing.  What Steinbeck is revealing here is that, despite not giving her a name, he has respect and compassion for Curley’s wife.  True, her short life was horrible, lonely and sad, and in the world in which she lived, she simply didn’t have a chance of survival.  As Steinbeck knew only too well, survival in the harsh world of migrant labourers required completely different qualities and aspirations to those portrayed by ‘the weak ones’.  

People like Slim could become ‘the prince of the ranch’ and survive through adversity, while people with any kind of difference or weakness, be it physical or mental, of race or gender, would struggle to survive in this particular world.  Curley, Candy, Crooks, Lennie and, of course, Curley’s wife all had to find this out the hard way.  As the only female on the ranch, and desperate to be liked and accepted by the male company around her, Curley’s nameless wife never stood a chance.  While at times she seemed positively evil, in the end Steinbeck showed her as a tragic victim of a world in which she simply did not have a place.

About the author of this work

Lynette Sofras is a former Head of English at a London High School.  She now divides her work days between editing and writing (mainly) women’s fiction.  You can read about her novels on her website:

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